By Feronia Ding
Since Louisa May Alcott’s initial publication of her novel Little Women in 1868, there have been countless adaptions, from plays, to films, to television. However, the 4 most prominent and beloved film adaptions are those from 1933, 1949, 1994 and 2019, respectively.
Starring Katherine Hepburn as Jo March and directed by George Cukor, the first Little Women (1933) “talkie” was extremely popular with critics and at the box office. It was released during the Great Depression (the same year unemployment peaked, at 25%) and this gave the Marches a point of relatability that audiences could empathise with. It truly resonated with viewers, through its portrayal of “simplicity, frugality, and the resilience of the spirit” (Masterpiece).
Little Women (1949) was portrayed in glorious technicolour and packed with many well-known stars; June Allyson took the role of Jo March, with Mervyn LerRoy as the director. It emphasised military service as a theme, appealing to audiences who had fresh memories of World War 2 and understood the fear from the homefront, of mobilising for a major war. This essentially shifted the film’s economic message, as “consumerism had become a patriotic duty” (The Atlantic). While in the 1933 version, the girls receive a dollar each from Aunt March and agonise over whether it’s morally right to spend the money themselves, in the 1949 adaption, writers had to invent a new scene in which the March sisters go on a spending spree. Although this film did well financially, it didn’t quite capture audiences like the previous adaption managed to.
During the era in which Little Women (1994) came out, it was almost impossible for female driven films to be made. The producer, Denise Di Novi revealed that they were referred to as “needle in the eye” movies, where a guy would say to his wife, “I’d rather have a needle in the eye than go to that movie”. However, because they were able to have a big name like Winona Ryder willing to play Jo March, Columbia relented, and Gillian Armstrong was brought in to direct the film. It was the first major adaption of Little Women since the Women’s Movement, and the mass entrance of women into the workforce; these themes are extremely prevalent within the film. While in the last 2 adaptions, Jo declines Laurie’s proposal due to her inability to care for him romantically, the 1994 version highlights Jo’s unwillingness to give up her liberty and the pursuit of her writing. The film was nominated for 3 Academy Awards and was acclaimed for its timelessness, warmth, and strong performances.
But what does Greta Gerwig’s adaption bring? If we compare the scene where Laurie proposes to Jo, it’s very obvious the 2019 film has taken a different kind of approach directing-wise. While the 3 earlier adaptations are fairly similar, filmed with the camera close and intimate between the two characters, Gerwig plays it wider, focusing on the space between them.
While her take on the scene doesn’t change the story, or Jo’s response to Laurie’s proposal, she brings something new, emotionally and visually. Her clever use of blocking and energised camerawork bring the scene alive, it feels visceral in a way the other scenes don’t. Perhaps the biggest alteration is the non-linear timeline, which contrasts the sisters, older and wiser in life, to the golden warmth of childhood, “for every event that occurred in the girls’ youth, there seemed to be something in adulthood that mirrored it,” (Emily Wind, Medium).
By starting the film with Laurie and Jo already separated and Meg and John already together, Gerwig takes the focus away from who will or won’t marry each other, and instead brings the audience’s attention to the March sister’s lives, to how they’re dealing with loss and growing older. She takes liberties with the ending and instead subverts the idea of Jo’s eventual marriage – Jo’s acceptance of Professor Frederick’s proposal only happens within Jo’s in-movie book, she does not truly marry him. Little Women (2019) is essentially a love letter to Louisa May Alcott, who never married, and for whom the novel was semi-autobiographical.
Gerwig acknowledges that the author may have wished for Jo March to remain unmarried but was likely to have been pressured into giving the character a traditional, romantic ending. In essence, Greta Gerwig’s 2019 adaption of Little Women is a commentary on the 3 other film adaptions and their choice to keep Jo’s engagement as the climax of the plot. In Gerwig’s adaption, the climax of the story for Jo is not an engagement, but the eventual publishing of her book, which collapses the space between Jo March and Louisa May Alcott.
Ultimately, each adaption of Little Women has managed to capture the hearts of each generation, with each film finding something new in the original source material. Little Women is a story that is universal, and one that can be adapted for generations to come.